As I speak with more people about the possibilities created by radical acceptance, I often hear responses like:
"I want to be a new and improved me, not accept the way I am."
"If I accept the way things are, they will never change."
"Acceptance equals passivity, and I'm not interested in being passive. I'm an activist!"
"Are you suggesting I accept abuse, dominance, and oppression!?!?"
In a society that consistently promotes a linear and hierarchical view of success and change, these statements make a lot of sense. The subtle and not-so-subtle messages we often receive from families, schools, and work places are that if you do not strive to progress up some kind of ladder, you will become stuck or, worse, a failure. And probably a lazy one at that!
As a mentor recently reminded me, we in the United States also frequently carry around a deep-seated view of ourselves as defective, in part due to the dominance of the original sin doctrine. Why would we not want to jump onto the treadmill of self-improvement after internalizing the message that we are inherently bad? What I find interesting is that other cultures, such as that of the Tibetan Dalai Lama, believe something very different. In the Dalai Lama's words,
Every sentient being—even insects—have Buddha nature. The seed of Buddha means consciousness, the cognitive power—the seed of enlightenment...All these destructive things can be removed from the mind, so therefore there’s no reason to believe some sentient being cannot become Buddha. So every sentient being has that seed.
I do not mean to idealize other cultures or to heroify the Dalai Lama. Instead, I find a powerful inquiry to be, "What would my life be like if I truly believed it is sacred?" The idea of Buddha nature relates to radical acceptance in that believing our lives are worth cherishing encourages us to come back to the present moment, see it clearly, and jump into it wholeheartedly. In contrast, when we stay focused on all the ways we stink at this life, we experience only a sliver of it.
"So what the heck do I mean by radical acceptance!?" you may be wondering if you have reached this point. I am drawn to Tara Brach's portrayal of radical acceptance. She describes it as the ability to be with our experience--our internal weather systems--and say, "Okay, this is here, right now." This "letting be" does not mean passivity in the face of harm. Rather, it means recognizing that our wish for something different is at odds with the reality that is here. We can still dare to dream about and pursue change in the world when we accept our moment-to-moment experience. We do so, however, with more clarity about the pathways that liberate and revitalize us rather than lead to more battling, struggling, exhaustion and, ultimately, loneliness and despair. Perhaps a concrete example is in order.
When I was graduate student and, later, a university professor, I spent most of my conscious moments observing the inequities of social institutions, including those of the university where I worked. I oftentimes felt depleted, powerless, and less and less capable of getting out of bed in the morning, an action that usually preceded armoring up for another day of battle. When I would notice my fatigue and depression, I would quickly call on my internal judge, often without realizing it. She would admonish, "You are so ungrateful. What is wrong with you!? You lead a charmed life and should appreciate it. Get it together and stop complaining. Nobody likes a complainer, especially one as privileged as you."
Needless to say, this incessantly playing tape of criticism did not bring me fulfillment, joy, peace, or that much sought after productivity. What did transform my life was a consciously made commitment to begin paying attention to what was going on inside of me, no matter what that was. This commitment required a shift in my belief that I could not acknowledge my own suffering because of the social and economic privileges I had inherited. Once I began to soften and open to my own pain, I recognized the underlying belief that had guided many of my days to that point: my life was not worthy of close study. I began to interrupt this story of entrenched deficiency with the behaviors and words I could muster. I placed my hand on my heart, for example, and began to use lovinkindness blessings when I became aware of dis-ease: "May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be safe. May you live with ease."
Slowly but surely, I began to recognize how much of my life had been lived in my head. I therefore had missed out on establishing and sustaining important human connections as well as experiencing the wonders and fragility of this living and dying world. I let myself grieve those unlived precious moments and, eventually, became more adept at perceiving and responding with friendliness to my internal weather systems. As the willlingness to honor the sacredness of my own life grew, I began to let go of my belief in some very familiar roles, like that of the oppressor and oppressed. Recognizing how often my own nature changed, I found that using shorthand, static categories for others and myself no longer made sense. These labels, or solid identifications, kept me from arriving at a deeper understanding of what makes people and systems tick and responding to them in more skillful ways.
Of course I continue to be a work in progress, but I now understand at an experiential level how honoring my own life has expanded my ability to honor others'. I can say and mean to a client, "What if there is nothing wrong with you and you just need to take off all those coats that are covering up who you are?"
I also wholeheartedly believe that the "boundary to what you can accept is the boundary to your freedom."* As poet Danna Faulds wrote,
Trust the energy that Courses through you Trust, Then take surrender even deeper. Be the energy. Don't push anything away. Follow each Sensation back to its source In vastness and pure presence.
Emerge so new, so fresh that You don't know who you are.
Be the energy and blaze a Trail across the clear night Sky like lightning. Dare to Be your own illumination.**